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Tracking shame and humiliation in Accident and Emergency

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In this paper, we reflect upon shame and humiliation as threats to personal and professional integrity and moral agency within contemporary health care. A personal narrative, written by a nurse about a particular shift in a British National Health Service Accident and Emergency Department, is provided as a case study. This is critically reflected and commented upon in dialogue with insights into the nature of shame and humiliation. It is suggested that Accident and Emergency is a locus that is latently prone to dynamics of shame and humiliation, a potential exacerbated within a culture subject to externally-determined time targets that are enforced by a top-down system of surveillance and management. The result is that nurses may lose their sense of professional competence and responsibility, moral agency, and integrity, to their own personal detriment, as well as to the detriment of patients with whom they work. Insofar as examining a small part of a whole may suggest insights into the operation and ethos of a very large system, this very particular case study narrative/reflection has some important implications and lessons for the wider organization and provision of health care in Britain and beyond.

Keywords: ethics; guilt; humiliation; moral agency; nursing; shame

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: D'Oyly Carte Professor of Medicine and the Arts, Department of English, King's College London, London, UK

Publication date: 2011-04-01

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